El Niño: A Chaotic Dynamical System?

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Science  11 Apr 1986:
Vol. 232, Issue 4747, pp. 243-245
DOI: 10.1126/science.232.4747.243


Most of the principal qualitative features of the El Niño—Southern Oscillation phenomenon can be explained by a simple but physically motivated theory. These features are the occurrence of sea-surface warmings in the eastern equatorial Pacific and the associated trade wind reversal; the aperiodicity of these events; the preferred onset time with respect to the seasonal cycle; and the much weaker events in the Atlantic and Indian oceans. The theory, in its simplest form, is a conceptual model for the interaction of just three variables, namely near-surface temperatures in the east and west equatorial ocean and a wind-driven current advecting the temperature field. For a large range of parameters, the model is naturally chaotic and aperiodically produces El Niño—like events. For a smaller basin, representing a smaller ocean, the events are proportionally less intense.